Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Through February 5
by Rachel Stevens
The slow extinction of analog film and photography has inspired many artists to take up the task of eulogizing cinema. Just last month, the last lab to develop Kodachrome—Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas—ceased their operations. Although there is no going back to obsolescent material processes of filmmaking, cinema clearly continues to have a life through cultural memory.
Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler mine this territory in two video pieces that explore cinema’s relationship to landscape and social space. Cinema is explored as a relic of the past that is also connected to the present, as it lives on in the experiences, environment and memories of people occupying landscapes marked by filmmaking. In Méliès, a two-screen installation, a site in West Texas known as Movie Mountain is revealed to be the site of a silent film made 100 years ago through contemporary interviews with people who live nearby. The story is vague, however, as uncertain fragments are patched together from stories of relatives from previous generations. Maybe it was a Western; maybe the crew came on a train that no longer stops in the town; maybe filmmaker Georges Méliès’ less famous brother made the film as he on his way to Hollywood. No one can be sure, but meanwhile, through melancholic music and an array of gorgeous and iconic images—shots of the rugged western landscape backlit by the sunset, a woman in a cowboy hat on horseback, guns on a wall and the lined faces of the interviewees—the viewer is transported into the liminal world between a cinematic fiction and the temporal present.
The work begins and ends with an image of a man with a microphone framed by the landscape. Audible testimony is held in contrast to the elusive history of the silent film allegedly made there. What is discernable, however, is the trace, and Hubbard and Birchler have organized their experimental narrative around it. “At once a poetic trope and a set of material operations,” writes Yates McKee, in the context of an essay on land art, “the trace links presence and absence, inscription and erasure, preservation and destruction and appearance and disappearance…”*
Grand Paris Texas, a feature-length single-channel piece, unearths the history of the Grand Theater in the town of Paris, Texas, as it also explores the town’s relationship to the film Paris, Texas (which wasn’t actually shot there). Described by the small town’s film critic as “a puzzlement” and “about estrangement,” references to the film’s slow-moving narrative about a man trying to have a second chance in life mirrors the decline of the Grand Theater. Its history is told through interviews with the film critic and a host of other locals whose lives have somehow been touched by this film having almost been made there, such as a Depression-era candy sales girl, a man who was cast in the film when he was nine, and a funeral director who believes that “directing a funeral is like directing a film.” Woven throughout are sad images of a once-grand theater.
Although at its conclusion a teenager who finally watches a rented VHS copy of Paris, Texas misses the end of the story when she discovers that it had been taped over with a silent film Western, we understand that erasure and displacement are integral to the way stories from the past speak to us. Both Méliès and Grand Paris Texas ultimately reveal that cinema’s cultural narratives live on through slippages between film fantasy and everyday life inscribed in the social landscape.
*Yates McKee, “Wake, Vestige, Survival: Sustainability and the Politics of the Trace in Allora and Calzadilla’s Land Mark,” October 133 (2010): 23.
Rachel Stevens is an artist and writer based in New York City.